Sunday, December 23, 2007

Karoshi - Death by Overwork

It's a phenonmenon that's typically Japanese - death by working.

The official stats show that the average Japanese worker puts in 1,780 hours per year, just under the 1,800 logged by American workers. What doesn't enter into these calculations, however, are the hundreds of hours of "free overtime" expected to a lot of Japanese workers. From The Economist:

" in three men aged 30 to 40 works over 60 hours a week. Half say they get no overtime. Factory workers arrive early and stay late, without pay. Training at weekends may be uncompensated.

During the past 20 years of economic doldrums, many companies have replaced full-time workers with part-time ones. Regular staff who remain benefit from lifetime employment but feel obliged to work extra hours lest their positions be made temporary.

The survivors of Karochi victims are now going to court. When they succeed they can recover upwards of $1-million from the employer and a $20,000 annual payment from the Japanese government.

"...a recent court ruling has put companies under pressure to change their ways. On November 30th the Nagoya District Court accepted Hiroko Uchino's claim that her husband, Kenichi, a third-generation Toyota employee, was a victim of karoshi when he died in 2002 at the age of 30. He collapsed at 4am at work, having put in more than 80 hours of overtime each month for six months before his death. “The moment when I am happiest is when I can sleep,” Mr Uchino told his wife the week of his death. He left two children, aged one and three.

As a manager of quality control, Mr Uchino was constantly training workers, attending meetings and writing reports when not on the production line. Toyota treated almost all that time as voluntary and unpaid. So did the Toyota Labour Standards Inspection Office, part of the labour ministry. But the court ruled that the long hours were an integral part of his job. On December 14th the government decided not to appeal against the verdict.

The ruling is important because it may increase the pressure on companies to treat “free overtime” (work that an employee is obliged to perform but not paid for) as paid work. That would send shockwaves through corporate Japan, where long, long hours are the norm.

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